Column: Michael Sam opens doors for gay athletes

Michael Sam, #52 of the Missouri Tigers, celebrates with fans after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 9, 2013.(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – “I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am. I’m Michael Sam. I’m a college graduate, I’m African-American, and I’m gay.”

With those words, the idea of an openly gay professional athlete in one of the four major sports leagues is close to reality.

Assuming Michael Sam is drafted in May (the senior defensive end out of Missouri heads to the NFL scouting combine as a projected 3rd-4th round pick), he’ll become the first openly gay player in NFL history, thus ensuring the leap to the NFL isn’t the only leap of faith he’s taking.

As LZ Granderson points out, Sam is far from the first gay player in the NFL. Jerry Smith’s name is right here at FedEx Field in the Redskins Ring of Honor, and his tale was recently recounted by NFL Network’s “A Football Life” series.

But Sam is the first player to come out before his career officially begins, rather than at a point during or after his playing days. All he will know is the scrutiny and media attention stemming from his bold announcement.

The genesis of Sam’s decision is laid out in detail


. I think he played this exactly the way you have to when you’re breaking something this big: He shared his truth with the people around him, then shared it with the public before the story got ahead of him.

San delivered his message on his terms without having to respond to rumors or reports from anonymous sources.

Sam’s draft status shouldn’t suffer. He’s one of the best defensive ends in one of the best conferences in college football so he figures to garner some attention from teams seeking to bolster their pass rush.

It’ll come down to whether teams are willing to take on the distraction of the media attention he’ll attract.

The early reaction around the NFL has been mixed thus far, but I believe things will eventually get better for Sam as time goes by.

Hopefully, he’ll go to a team like New England that has strong leadership and a quality support system in place. This ensures he’ll not only maximize his talent, but his opportunity to eliminate any stereotypes or negative connotations associated with his lifestyle.

However, that shouldn’t be Sam’s focus. His publicist Howard Bragman hits the nail on the head:

“Michael is a football player, not an activist,” Bragman said.

“If you start showing up at too many dinners and too many parades, you start to send the message to a potential team about his priorities. The community wins when he steps onto an NFL field and plays in a game, not as the grand marshal of a pride parade. He may do that eventually, but the first year needs to be all about football.”

Hopefully, removing the burden of secrecy will help him do that. I hate the comparison of racial discrimination to the intolerance of sexual orientation, but the struggle for equality is largely similar.

Sam will need to do more than stick to an NFL roster to tear down barriers for gay athletes the way Jackie Robinson did for race in baseball.

That’s why the weight and the impact of this announcement can’t be overstated.

After watching Sam in his ESPN interview, it’s apparent he’s confident and comfortable in his own skin. He’s also overcome a lot of adversity and personal tragedy in his life, perhaps making him uniquely suited as a trailblazer for gay athletes. He’s taken the first step and some of the heat off subsequent young athletes brave enough to be who they are without worrying about public perception.

Seeing the locker room doors open for gay athletes is long overdue.

Here’s hoping history will remember Michael Sam as the man who opened those doors and left them open for more homosexual athletes bold enough to be true to themselves.

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